The Public Way: Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

If Bicycling Goes Mainstream, Does Bike Culture Just Go?

Most groups that believe they both stand for important values and suffer the scorn of mainstream society, create an in-group culture.  Bicyclists are no exception.  One component of bike culture is an activist orientation that has placed cyclists in the forefront of grass roots campaigns for road improvement starting with the “Good Roads” movement in the early 1900s.  It is possible that just as paved roads ended up setting the stage for an auto-centric culture, today’s push for more bike facilities may lead to the swamping of “bikey” culture by “ordinary” people.  But, so what if it does?  As long as America’s transportation infrastructure does little to accommodate the needs of bicyclists, as long as American culture treats cycling like a risky non-standard if not abnormal activity, then most of the people who bicycle will be risk takers — people who enjoy feeling a bit estranged from middle-of-the-road culture.  And, like any group that feels both self-righteous and snubbed, and that has sufficient resources to organize themselves, cyclists stick together.  It is not surprising that a “bike culture” has emerged.  In fact, cyclists relish their outsider status, partly because they believe they represent better values and lifestyle choices than the surrounding SUV-society. Continue reading

Privacy On The Street: Fighting the Wrong Enemy

Why haven’t Massachusetts cities installed traffic light violation cameras, like New York and many other cities, that capture the license plate number of a vehicle running a red light and automatically send a traffic ticket?   Traffic-light violation cameras significantly reduce intersection violations and pedestrian injuries.  Critics cite possible privacy violations and the possibility that the vehicle owner may not be the driver breaking the law.  But neither argument has merit.  Just as a landlord can be held responsible for the public nuisance created by his tenants, a car owner is responsible for the behavior of anyone to whom she willingly lends her vehicle.  And breaking the law automatically cancels a person’s privacy rights.  When it comes to privacy, we’ve got it backwards.  Perhaps the intangible nature of digital information has misled our instincts and reversed our judgment, so that in matters concerning privacy we denounce things that are harmless while allowing things that can cause real harm.  Traffic-light violation cameras are not an invasion of privacy; giving business firms access to our registry database information is. Continue reading

Broken Windows and Broken Streets – Livable Streets as a Strategy to Reduce Crime and Support Local Business

Police talk about the “broken window syndrome” when visible neglect creates a feeling that anti-social behavior is acceptable.  But maybe there is also a “broken street syndrome” when the noise, smell, and danger of speeding cars and unfriendly public spaces scares people away and makes our neighborhoods ripe for decay.  What if intersections were redesigned so that it wasn’t so scary to cross the street?  What if trees were planted down both sides of the well-lit block?  What if commuters were no longer able to rush through the neighborhood?  What if cars were slowed to 20 mph, but traffic lights were timed so that drivers could cover just as much ground in the same amount of time as before?  What if bike lanes were located on major streets so cyclists didn’t have to ride on the sidewalk or in the middle of traffic?  Isn’t it likely that more people would spend time outdoors, providing what Jane Jacobs described as “eyes on the street”?  As Ms. Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “A well-used street is apt to be a safe street.  A deserted street is apt to be unsafe.” Continue reading

Why Health Care Reform Should Be a Transportation Issue (and visa versa)

American medicine is only peripherally about health; it is primarily about treating disease.   It is a sickness treatment system.  Even so-called preventive medicine is really about screening and early treatment.  What we need is pre-disease prevention:  ways to create a lived environment that directly and through its impact on behavior significantly increases wellbeing and reduces the risk of getting sick in the first place.  This is where Transportation comes in.  Public Health has traditionally focused on wellness, championing societal measures that that improve living conditions for large populations, or make it easier for individuals to make healthy choices within their everyday life.  Clean water, effective sewerage, tobacco taxes and anti-smoking campaigns, eliminating trans fats and other food toxins, requiring seat belts, reducing neighborhood and domestic violence, gun control, vaccination campaigns – these can all be considered public health measures that work by improving the environment, providing services, or shaping the market. Continue reading

Quick Quotes — Land Use & Livability

“’Sometimes we have to use cars, but that doesn’t mean they have to dominate our lives.  Instead it should be dominated by human interactions…the level of car us in New York City is so inconsistent with what we want out of our city,’  whether in terms of health, quality of public life, or air quality.” Paul Steely White, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives in Pedaling Revolution, by Jeff Mapes Continue reading

Transforming Transportation: Four Challenges Facing Boston (and most other cities)

Mayor Menino, like politicians around the country, has been talking about the need to create a more energy-efficient, safe, health-promoting, and community-friendly transportation system that creates less noise, has lower costs, and releases fewer green-house gasses.  He has begun a whole list of initiatives, from painting bike lanes to developing “complete streets” policies.  But going from vision to reality on a systemic, long-term, city-wide basis will not be easy.  There are at least four major challenges facing whoever takes over city hall. Continue reading

Miller’s Laws of Motion — or What Newton Didn’t Tell Us

Forget your physics class.  Travel is another dimension, where things happen according to a different set of natural laws.  I’ve modestly labeled the following as Miller’s Laws of Motion, but readers of this blog are welcome to add their own to the list…. 1) The narrower the road, the more likely you are to be stuck behind a very slow driver. When my family lived in rural New Hampshire, we called this the “Dan Hill syndrome.”  Dan was a wonderfully kind farmer who lived up the road from us and who seemed to believe that horse speed was the maximum appropriate for human travel.  Which wouldn’t have been so noticeable except for the fact that we all lived on a one-lane dirt road that went up a very long and steep incline making passing absolutely impossible – which forced us to slow down and enjoy the scenery. Continue reading

Why BRT Is NOT A Subway Line

The foundation for a healthy transportation system is a great public transit network.  But public transportation is expensive, so might buses do the job?  What makes for a good Rapid Transit system?   The basic characteristics are pretty straightforward: A dedicated travel corridor reserved for the transit vehicles, with minimal stops (except at designated passenger pick up/drop off locations), and engineered for a smooth and safe ride at relatively good speeds. The ability to provide limited stop express service as well as local service. Prepayment and vehicle door-level boarding at transit stations so passengers can quickly move on and off the vehicles. Capacity to move large numbers of people. Extended hours of operation across a wide area. And the best systems also incorporate: Advanced technology to keep passengers informed of wait times or problems, to keep the vehicles moving closely but not dangerously behind each other, and to allow for tight alignment of vehicle doorways with boarding areas. Hybrid or electric engines to minimize pollution. Regular maintenance to sustain reliability and keep fares low. The problem is that fixed rail systems – trains, trolleys, subways, and light rail – are incredibly expensive to build, and once constructed they are forever frozen in one location. Continue reading

Bikes Are Vehicles; But They’re Not Cars

Some bicycle advocacy groups promote the slogan “Same Roads, Same Laws” to support cyclists’ right to use the roadway along with car traffic.  I think it’s a bad slogan; at best incomplete, at worst self-defeating.  Bikes and cars are radically different types of vehicles, exposing cyclists and drivers to radically different conditions.  In addition to the laws that all vehicles should obey, we need special laws and road designs to protect the safety and promote the use of bicycles. Continue reading

Why The Next Stimulus Bill May Not Transform Transportation Either

We’ve begun hearing rumors of a potential follow-up stimulus bill that will inject additional billions into infrastructure spending.  But if state officials use the same narrow definition of “shovel ready” to select projects for funding for the new bill that they did for the old one, we’ll be stuck with another set of  old car-centric highway plans that don’t incorporate today’s “complete streets” approach. To its credit, Massachusetts was one of only six states to spend more than 10% of their federal stimulus funds on non-car projects. But the reality is that stimulus funds are intended to provide a quick stimulus – to be spent quickly and have an immediate impact. On the other hand, road projects take a very long time to plan, design, and get approved. Continue reading